by Bob Gates
It's been 50 years since Fire N Desire won the 21st running of the Manitoba Derby. The recent media flood of documentaries reminds us of another event that shares this anniversary. Fire N Desire's July 19, 1969 Derby romp took place on the eve of the Apollo lunar landing.
It was an exciting time and we all remember where we were and what we were doing when Neil Armstrong and company landed on the moon. The historic feat of July 20, 1969 may have over-shadowed our Derby that year and yet sweet memories of that Manitoba Derby remain.
For myself it was father and son day at the races. Dad's been gone now for six years, but that Derby is the best memory I have of my father, James Harold Gates. Fire N Desire's Derby win will forever be linked with the treasured memory of my Dad.
Mike Olito will never forget that Derby day either. Mike had his first date with his future bride, Verla and the two of them have been around the track for what seems like forever. It was a memorable Derby for jockey Dickie Armstrong as well. He got his one and only Derby win aboard Fire N Desire.
Fifty years ago, Fire N Desire and Armstrong won a thrilling duel with Icy Song and Avelino Gomez in the "Run for the Tartan." Now there's a phrase we don’t hear these days. The following day another Armstrong aboard Lunar Module "Eagle" landed safely in the Sea of Tranquility on the moon and he went for his famous stroll. You have to admit, there's something about those Armstrong boys.
Any way you look at it, the 1969 Derby run was a classic. Five of the nine combatants were by the legendary Nearctic, sire of the great Northern Dancer. Two of Canada's top jockeys were in Winnipeg to try and put a Manitoba Derby notch in their belt for the first time. Avelino Gomez got the call on Warren Beasley’s Icy Song and Brian Swatuk was riding Conn Smythe’s The Northerner. Gomez had just won his fourth Queen’s Plate with a win aboard Beasley’s Jumpin Joseph. Swatuk had ridden 224 winners and earned $580,424 in purse money in 1968, making him Canada’s top jock.
No other story lines were needed, but then there was Fire N Desire. Owners Sam Lima and Morris Rose brought their "Cinderella" horse west. They had claimed, some say "stole," the son of Nearctic out of Gai Parisienne that April for $12,000. Together they suffered through a couple of lackluster efforts before the brown colt found himself and started to run in a way befitting of his name.
Fire N Desire was red hot going into Manitoba's Derby. In his five races leading up to his Derby run he’d registered four victories and a third-place finish. Included in these races was a win in the Queen's Plate Trial and of course the third-place finish in the Queen’s Plate. Not to mention that in his race just prior to the Trial he paid $108 to win! Lima and Rose sure got their money worth! Even in today's dollars, the $12,000 price tag was a bargain price for a horse of his caliber.
Lima and Rose's main competition was expected to come from Warren Beasley's Icy Song. Beasley elected to leave Queen's Plate winner Jumpin Joseph at home. Word on the street was that he didn’t need Jumpin Joseph to win the Manitoba classic. Apparently, Beasley was quoted as saying "why use a shotgun when a rifle will do the job!"
The official form chart shows that after the opening quarter Fire N Desire bested Icy Song all the way to the wire. Years later Dick Armstrong told me that Icy Song got his nose in front a couple of times in between the points-of-call. After a grueling stretch battle, Fire N Desire beat Icy Song by the shortest of heads and set up, at that time, a record low Quinella of $3.10. Dad and I, like everybody else, nailed it. We had the “Q” five times.
The finish met with thunderous applause as Fire N Desire and Armstrong outlasted Icy Song and Gomez in what was truly one of the best duels in Downs history. The edge went to Armstrong, who pinned Gomez on the rail. Gomez may have known the Queen's Plate track, but Armstrong knew Assiniboia Downs. The headline in the Winnipeg Free Press said it all – “Fire N Desire Had Just Enough of Both.”
A few years ago, I contacted Sam Lima and talked about his 1969 Derby experience. Sam laughed as he told me the after-party at a local Winnipeg hotel cost just about as much as the winners share of the $12,500 Derby purse. We spoke a few times over the years and Sam always wanted to know when I was coming to Toronto. "We have to go to the races," he would say.
This past February I received the sad news that Sam Lima had passed. He was 89. In 2018 Sam received a special Sovereign Award for his contributions to thoroughbred racing as a former vice-president and director of the HBPA and long-time President of the Toronto Thoroughbred Racing Club.
Sam doted on his Manitoba Derby champion and our sympathies go out to his children Joanne, Sal, Carolyn and John and his wife of 63 years, Frances. Sam and I never got to the races, but we fondly remember his Derby win, which celebrates its golden anniversary alongside of the most historic event of mankind.
Happy 50th Sam. Please give Fire N Desire’s nose a kindly rub for me.